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Chasing the dream

As they become more powerful politically and culturally, H-1B visa holders are facing a backlash among those who question the need to import labor in the midst of today's economic slowdown.

 

Chasing the dream
 
Foreign workers face new opposition in tech slump

By Rachel Konrad
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
August 13, 2001, 4:00 a.m. PT

They can't vote. They rarely own property. Many don't speak English, and about half leave the United States after only a few years.

But in the few short years since arriving under the H-1B visa program, foreign engineers and other workers have become permanent fixtures in Silicon Valley and other centers of high technology. A colorblind meritocracy?They have skewed demographic trends for overall U.S. immigration through higher levels of education, wages, corporate influence and career ambition.

Even as they become an increasingly powerful political and cultural force, however, H-1B visa holders are facing a backlash among those who question the need to import labor in the midst of today's economic slowdown. Opponents are preparing to challenge the immigration program in Washington, lobbying for more technology education among U.S. citizens in what they call a critical need to keep foreigners from stealing American jobs.

Model of new immigration threatened
Critics say companies hire H-1B employees because they will work for lower wages and not cause trouble for fear of losing their visas. Such opposition, if successful, could undo what many believe to be a model of U.S. immigration in the new millennium.

Cultural transformation in the suburbs
While playing an instrumental role in the industry's boom, foreign workers have literally changed the face of their communities. Many are transforming regional culture through businesses, politics and school systems by sheer numbers and involvement.

Surveys point to fear, resentment
H-1B workers may be better educated and make more money than their immigrant predecessors, but surveys show that they face problems encountered by generations before them: ethnic stereotyping and workplace hostility.

The myths and realities of H-1B visas
Many Americans think H-1B visa holders take jobs from U.S. citizens, while some H-1B visa holders themselves think they must flee the country if they are laid off. Here are some of the most common misperceptions about H-1B visas.

 

News around the Web
H1-B visa bill goes to Clinton
Internet.com 
U.S. slump poses threat to India's programmers
EE Times 
The new brain game
The Industry Standard 
High-tech immigrants see dreams deflating
The Associated Press 
India's tech workers feel squeeze
Wired News

Related news
Appeal denied in H-1B visa case

Speedier H-1B visa program under fire

"Body shop" must pay fees in H-1B lawsuit

Ruling could be a boon to H-1B workers

The H-1B visa battle

Editors: Mike Yamamoto,
Noel Wilson, Royce Hall, Dina Gachman
Design: Ellen Ng
Production: Ben Helm

 
Model of new immigration threatened

Purnima Srinivasan is looking for work as a market researcher so she can stay in the United States after her student visa expires.

But even though she has a master's degree in marketing from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Srinivasan gets tapped for more jobs in computer programming and engineering than in her own field.

"I don't really understand much about networking and all that, but they have an abundance of jobs and not as many people willing to fill them," said the 26-year-old native of Chennai, India, who lives with family in Southern California. "It's kind of a stereotype: 'She's Indian, therefore she can program.' But I, for one, have no knowledge of programming."

Which of the following do you feel plays a part in the controversial/sensitive nature of immigrant worker/H-1B policy issues? (more than one response allowed)
U.S. worries over losing jobs to noncitizens 85%
U.S. worries that immigrant hiring will cause pay scales to drop 60%
U.S. workers have difficulty communicating with immigrant tech workers 60%
The expense/trouble required to sponsor an H-1B visa worker 47%
U.S. workers? fears/mistrust of different cultural practices 27%
U.S. workers? prejudice against non-whites 25%
H-1B workers? deficiencies in education or training 25%
U.S. workers' fears/mistrust of non-JudeoChristian religions 12%

Source: Techies.com
Her plight is a testament to the strong reputation among foreign programmers that has driven much of the federal government's labor immigration policy through the so-called H-1B visa program. It also is a telling example of the penchant for stereotyping that pervades the American workplace.

Much of the controversy over H-1B visas subsided last year after former President Clinton signed legislation raising the limit on the foreign worker permits. But the economic slowdown, which has caused a raft of layoffs in technology, has raised new questions about the need to import labor from other countries--and has triggered an ugly backlash against the program and its participants.

"Late last year, Congress admitted thousands of special high-tech foreign workers, even as the economy was slowing and reports of massive fraud in the program were circulating," wrote the Coalition for the Future American Worker, a Washington-based umbrella organization of professional trade organizations and immigration reform groups. "This year, many of those H-1B foreign workers are still sitting idle in the United States, while American high-tech workers are increasingly scrambling for employment."

The shortage of technology workers in the United States--whether real or perceived--could become a major issue in Congress in the fall as a growing number of politicians call for tax money to fund science and engineering education programs and lessen the reliance on foreign workers. The H-1B program may also become a target of conservative political forces opposing new programs that could make it easier for foreigners to work in the United States.

Such opposition, if successful, could undo what many believe to be a model of U.S. immigration in the new millennium. Unlike their predecessors of the last two centuries, skilled foreign professionals with H-1B visas are typically well-educated, proficient in English and generously paid. Few must flee political strife or famine in their native countries, and their new employers often welcome them to senior or "mission critical" positions.

This year, many of those H-1B foreign workers are still sitting idle in the United States, while American high-tech workers are increasingly scrambling for employment. "We've achieved what we have through sheer willpower," said Tow Wang, a software developer from Milpitas, Calif., and a director of Immigrants Support Network, a nonprofit group formed by and for immigrants seeking U.S. residency through employment. "Politicians know we are their future constituents. A lot, but not all, are willing to listen. Attitudes are changing. It's revolutionary."

Congress created the H-1B program as part of the 1990 Immigration Act. It started as a means of importing workers to U.S. hospitals, universities and companies specializing in cancer research, plastics, computer programming and other occupations. By the mid-1990s, when technology surrounding the Internet caused an unprecedented economic boom, the H-1B program became a conduit for computer programmers and engineers, mainly from India and Taiwan, as demand for such professionals exceeded the number of workers in these fields produced by U.S. universities.

Workers are pigeonholed
Early successes created a perception among U.S. companies that H-1B workers are more technically proficient than their American counterparts, as many have relevant work experience and advanced degrees in math, computer science and engineering. The bias toward H-1B workers is so strong that some foreigners with little or no computing or engineering skills are recruited for technical positions, such as Srinivasan.

Workplace stereotyping cuts both ways, however, especially in the volatile combination of economics and immigration.

The bulk of layoffs in the industry have hit marketing, sales, human resources and other non-technical departments, sparing many programmers and engineers--foreign or domestic. Nevertheless, in anonymous surveys imbued with racial undertones, Americans malign H-1B visa workers as job thieves willing to work for lower wages and driving down the salary scales at U.S. companies.

Do you feel there is a shortage of tech workers in the United States?
Yes 41%
No 51%
Don't know 8%
Source: Techies.com
The law states that H-1B workers must be paid at least the median wage in their given job category when hired through the program. But many say they ask for raises less frequently and are more reluctant to make waves than their American co-workers are out of fear that their work permits will be revoked--an acquiescence that H-1B opponents say eventually stunts salary growth across the board at higher ranks.

"There was always an unwillingness to speak out," said a 31-year-old software engineer in Menlo Park, Calif., who has a permanent green card and did not want his name used. "You didn't want to make too much noise in the company. They're sponsoring you, and you don't want to jeopardize that. If for any reason your boss starts to see you as a liability, you could lose it. You want to be the model employee."

Whatever the reason, demand for H-1B workers continues to rise despite the economic slowdown. In the first eight months of fiscal 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service received 224,876 H-1B applications. That is a 12.5 percent increase from the same period in fiscal 2000, when it received a record 199,836 H-1B requests.

The INS approved 117,000 H-1B applications from October, the beginning of the government's fiscal year, to May 23. It had a backlog of at least 40,000 applications waiting for approval, INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt said. The program will probably fill all 195,000 spots available for fiscal 2001 before the year ends in late September.

"Even with reports of large-scale layoffs in the tech industry, unemployment rates in the U.S. are still relatively low. There are still tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of jobs that companies cannot fill due to a lack of available American workers," said Robert C. Meltzer, president of VisaNow.com, a software company that helps automate processing and claims associated with H-1B visas. "Not just in the IT industry, but in aerospace, biotech, engineering and health care--all of these sectors look to hire H-1B workers when the domestic talent pool runs dry."

Business as usual
The largest employers in high technology--including computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard and chipmaker Intel--say they have no plans to stop hiring H-1B programmers. Executives note that they hire H-1B workers specifically because they cannot find an American who is equally suited for the job.

Have your feelings about non-U.S. tech workers changed in the last six months?
Yes 23%
No 73%
Don't know 4%
Source: Techies.com
It is this reasoning that has raised ire among opponents to the program, who argue that U.S. companies are hiring foreign workers because they will work for lower wages and generally do not fight management over workplace rights.

John M. Miano organized the Summit, N.J.-based Programmers Guild in 1998 to curtail the number of H-1B visas granted. His group and the American Engineering Association are circulating an online petition urging Congress to abolish H-1B visas.

"Over the past ten years, hundreds of thousands of American computer programmers, scientists, engineers and other technical professionals have been laid off by their employers," the petition reads, "many to see their jobs replaced by foreign labor."

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration and claims, is one of the most outspoken enemies of H-1B visas in Washington. He says it encourages companies to hire foreigners instead of to train Americans for the same jobs.

"It does not require all but a small handful of firms to make good-faith efforts to recruit U.S. workers before hiring foreign workers," he said to Congress during debates on the American Competitiveness bill. "It allows all but a small handful of firms to lay off American workers and replace American workers with foreign workers."

Others say the program is not only overused but also abused abroad. In fact, a recent State Department audit found widespread H-1B fraud at the consular office in Chennai, which issues more H-1B visas than anywhere else in the world. The cursory audit, which was phased out because of budgetary restrictions, found that numerous applicants claimed false academic degrees and exaggerated professional experience.

Among the U.S. population, meanwhile, the number of students graduating with computer science degrees dropped from 45,000 in 1986 to 24,000 in 2000. The United States has slipped behind England and South Korea in the percentage of the population with science or engineering degrees.

At the New Democrat Network's fifth annual retreat in San Francisco last month, politicians warned that the tech job crunch threatens to end America's half-century reign as the global tech hub. Economist and Stanford University professor Paul Romer is drafting a proposal with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that calls for $100 million in incentives for universities that graduate engineering and science students.

Hostility still seen
Members of the New Democrat Network did not explicitly discuss the ethnic profile of H-1B visa workers, but some of their remarks were reminiscent of post-war hostility that remains surprisingly strong today, as seen in anti-Asian sentiments related to the espionage accusations against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee and the U.S.-China spy plane standoff earlier this year. When foreigners' visas expire and they return to their native countries, politicians and business executives said at the conference, they could take their ideas, research and business plans with them.

You didn't want to make too much noise in the company. They're sponsoring you, and you don't want to jeopardize that. Although few H-1B holders report overt discrimination, some say they have experienced subtle but tangible forms of bias in the workplace. American bosses rarely question their ability to do programming and engineering tasks, but H-1B workers say they face formidable hurdles when trying to branch out of technical positions and move into sales or human resources.

"I am not aware of any significant discrimination on basis of race or culture," said an Indian-born manager at a Foster City, Calif.-based technology company who received an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India. "I do, however, see a clear distinction being made on educational background and country of origin.

"In spite of my being from a business school which is among the top five in Asia and perhaps being as intellectually capable as any American B-schooler in terms of competencies, preference is given to Americans in this arena," the manager said. "This I speak from personal experience."

Such issues have inspired H-1B workers to join ranks and accumulate considerable political clout in a relatively short time. They owe at least part of their success to cohesive geography--often having been clustered in such influential regions as California's Silicon Valley and suburban Washington, D.C.--and to adopt use of the Internet as a means of communication that has united communities in the United States with those in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

"We have problems. We need to speak out--even more than we already do," said Murali Krishna Devarakonda, a tech worker from Santa Clara, Calif., and another director of the 21,000-member Immigrants Support Network. "The United States has a great system here--a place where even immigrants have a voice. We've been silent for far too long, and now we're ready to raise our voice."

Their voice could easily become a deafening roar. According to government estimates, there are nearly half a million H-1B workers living in the United States. During the late 1990s, the booming economy lured about 1 million legal immigrants each year to the United States, many of them from India and Taiwan and on H-1B visas. (Self-employed entrepreneurs, transferred executives and other foreigners receive different visas.)

In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton in October passed the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act. With strong support from tech business groups such as TechNet and the Information Technology Association of America, the act increased the limit of H-1B visas granted, from 115,000 to 195,000 per year. In 1998, the limit was 65,000.

Bush's plan
Those numbers could again come under scrutiny as tensions over immigration policy intensify with new policies proposed by the Bush administration. In early July, a White House administration task force, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, began leaking details of a plan to allow undocumented workers to stay in the United States through a multi-staged process that could confer "legal status" upon them.

The Bush administration, which has close ties to Mexican President Vicente Fox, said the program would make it easier for immigrants to become citizens. Critics immediately blasted the plan, claiming that it would be the biggest change to U.S. immigration policy in 15 years.

Although few politicians on either side brought up the H-1B debate in the most recent round of immigration salvos, many visa holders are concerned that Washington conservatives will reverse the success they have achieved. They also worry that an anti-immigration backlash could foil new directives to speed the visa process and make the INS less bureaucratic.

"Finding help or even thinking of (job) security is a remote thing," said a 28-year-old Indian H-1B worker, a consultant in enterprise software who has an MBA and degrees in computer systems management. "I have had quite a few ups and downs and never get to know who is the right authority to reach out for help."

Increasingly, American law firms are opening online divisions to handle the potentially lucrative contracts of workers looking for attorneys to handle issues associated with visas.

Jon Velie, an immigration lawyer with Velie & Velie of Norman, Okla., operates OnlineVisas.com for prospective workers abroad. In January, shortly after he opened the site, he took in $7,500 for processing and legal fees from online customers. In February, he made $26,000. In March, he made $35,000. In April, he made $50,000.

"I've represented people from Colombia, Nepal, China, and lots of Indians, Pakistanis and Persians," Velie said. "We're getting hit from every continent, excluding Antarctica--Israel, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand. These people know technology and feel comfortable handling the processing and communicating online. It only makes it easier for them."

And once they are here, many find that the red tape was well worth enduring. At least three out of four H-1B workers apply to stay past the six-year H-1B extended limit, and half receive green cards. They often go on to become naturalized U.S. citizens, according to the INS.

Many are fervently patriotic about their newly adopted land and bring spouses and family members to join them. To that extent, workers say, they are merely a more educated, mobile and technologically savvy example of the kind of immigration that founded the United States.

"I must say I enjoyed every minute I lived on U.S. soil," said Deepak Solomon Arulraj, a 28-year-old software engineer from Chennai. Arulraj has a master's degree in electrical and electronics engineering from Tennessee State University and programmed for a Detroit-area contract firm. He returned to India when his contract agency stopped paying his wages.

"I hope to make it back some day!" Arulraj gushed in an e-mail. "You guys have been born into a land that flows with milk and honey. God has definitely blessed the work of your forefathers."


 

 
The Valley
The epicenter of H-1B power is in Silicon Valley, which trumped Los Angeles in the past decade and is now the state's largest Indo-American enclave. Silicon Valley's 314,819-member Indian community grew 97 percent in the past decade. San Jose, Calif., has more Indians than 37 states.

Santa Clara County's Indian population surged 231 percent in the past decade, to 66,741, and it's now the third-largest Indian county in the nation. Because most of the growth came through H-1B workers, the Indian population over the past decade more than doubled in other tech hubs: Fairfax County, Va.; Middlesex County, Mass.; and King County, Wash., headquarters of Microsoft.

In 1989, the U.S. government approved 2,100 temporary work permits to Indians. In 1999, it approved 55,000, according to a Georgetown University analysis.

 
Cultural transformation in the suburbs

FREMONT, Calif.--Peter Van Lai was a software development manager at Mongo.com until he got laid off last year. Now he is marketing director for Vietnam Orient Tours, where he organizes and leads cultural voyages to Southeast Asia.

"The American veterans want to go back to talk to people, to learn more about what happened, maybe go shopping in Bangkok," the Vietnamese native said. "The Vietnam people, the Asians, they just want to go back home to see family, to relax, to visit the towns where they were born. They work hard in the United States and want a vacation."

I have to learn a whole lot of different customs: where to take my shoes off, when to sit on the floor. Despite his relatively nondescript office in a weathered suburban strip mall, surrounded by Vietnamese beauticians, Chinese restaurants and auto repair shops, Van Lai is part of one of the biggest immigration and work force trends in the United States.

The number of Asian immigrants to the United States, particularly to California, is mushrooming, fueled by lucrative jobs in the technology industry. Many come from India or Taiwan on temporary H-1B work permits, but more than half end up staying permanently as green-card holders or, eventually, as naturalized U.S. citizens. Because they often sponsor and support other family members who want to come to the United States, their population growth exceeds that of other U.S. ethnic and racial groups, such as non-Hispanic whites or African-Americans.

Along the way, these immigrants find themselves wielding tremendous influence in the country's largest tech companies and venture capital firms. Like Van Lai, many are transforming regional culture through businesses, politics and school systems by their sheer numbers and involvement.

This latest wave of immigrants is unlike the traditional American immigrants of the 20th century, most of whom arrived from Europe without much money or education, relegated to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. They also differ from previous waves of Asian immigrants, who became a sizable group with the lifting of a 1965 U.S. ban on immigrants from Asia. That paved the way for thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s to come to the United States seeking political asylum from Vietnam. Many were penniless or politically oppressed, or both.

I feel free and independent here in America. I can make my life here, live comfortably, if I work hard. This is what I always dreamed about. By contrast, the newest immigrants are often highly educated and in great demand at high-paying tech companies. Here, in this San Francisco Bay Area community, where more than a third of the population is Asian, the average household income is $86,000. The average computer professional in California earned $60,580 in 1999, according to the most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the national household average for 2001 is $30,784, according to the BLS Current Population Survey.

Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison says the recent influx of Asians into the tech industry has resulted in the most dramatic demographic and cultural shift he has seen in more than two decades of Fremont politics.

"I have to learn a whole lot of different customs: where to take my shoes off, when to sit on the floor," said the 330-pound, 6-foot-5-inch mayor. "Sitting on the floor isn't as easy as it used to be. But I have to. We all have to. We're what California will become later this century, what the entire United States could become eventually."

Roughly 1 million legal immigrants a year moved to the United States during the 1990s, mainly from India and Taiwan, many on H-1B visas. H-1B visa holders must have a college degree or relevant work experience, and the government requires their employers to pay them the median wage for their job classification.

In that same decade, Fremont's Asian population went from 18 percent to 37 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing Asian enclaves in California. In surrounding Alameda, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, Asians make up a larger percentage of the population than do African-Americans or Latinos. Today, 10 percent of Fremont residents are from India, and 14.4 percent are from China, mainly Taiwan. About half work in the tech industry, usually starting off with H-1B visa permits or student visas.

The new residents' impact is apparent on a walk through Fremont's streets. There's the Hindu temple, Sikh Gurdwara, two mosques and an Islamic cultural center. Downtown, a huge eight-screen theater shows the latest top-grossing movies from India, such as the romantic crime comedy "Love Ke Liye Kuch Be Karega," or "Love x Crime = Fun."

Nearby is Town Tandoori, a deli-style Indian restaurant where owner Ranjit Singh hosted a grand opening on the Fourth of July. The restaurant is a blend of Singh's native Punjab and California. Posters of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park hang next to a rendering of an Indian woman baking traditional flat bread and another of three sari-clad women lounging in a bedroom while men ogle them from the doorway. Next to that is a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, not far from a print of a camel herder and his four beasts.

Singh, who spent 12 years learning how to cook in Glasgow, Scotland, realizes that the d?cor is slightly odd. But he thinks it is the best way to display his restaurant's authenticity--and his patriotism for his newly adopted country. He has already applied for a green card to work permanently in the United States.

"I feel free and independent here in America," said Singh, who came to the United States in 1998 seeking political asylum. "I can make my life here, live comfortably, if I work hard. This is what I always dreamed about."

The H-1B visa workers have largely escaped the effect of the recent economic slowdown, which has resulted in tens of thousands of layoffs at tech companies. Most of those workers have engineering, programming and mathematics backgrounds, while the layoffs have been concentrated in marketing, sales and human resources departments.

Yet many of the newest Fremont residents often find life tough. In particular, the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is daunting for people from developing countries used to far lower prices for homes, cars, rental units and taxes. Many new immigrants send money to relatives back home, eroding their disposable income.

Even the seemingly lucrative wages do not go far in a town where the average home sells for roughly $425,000, and rent on a two-bedroom apartment often exceeds $2,000 per month. Without rent control, it is not uncommon for rents to increase as much as 20 percent at the end of a yearly lease.

Edmond Sarhadi has first-hand knowledge of locals' cash crunch. The Iranian native, who became a U.S. citizen 11 years ago, was laid off from his job testing computers for 3Com four months ago. He tried to pick up work manufacturing and repairing electronics but says he can barely pay the rent. He plans to move to Las Vegas with his girlfriend in the fall.

"I don't want to leave California, but my job and my luck ran out," Sarhadi said while shopping for juice at an Indian grocery store. "It's like they want to get rid of all the poor people, all the foreigners who don't make $100,000 a year. I'm in the technology industry and can't afford it here--it's even worse if you're not in tech. I don't understand who's going to clean the garbage after we all leave."


 

 
Graying Labor
Perhaps the biggest factor causing the ranks of H-1B workers to swell is the aging population of the U.S. work force. According to American Demographics, seven baby boomers will turn 50 every minute in the United States from now until 2014.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the U.S. economy will have 161 million jobs by 2008, but its work force will be slightly more than 54 million. More than 60 million American employees will likely retire in the next 30 years.

"The bottom line is that if the U.S. economy is producing jobs faster than it is producing people to fill those jobs, foreign labor must be accepted as a viable solution to the labor shortage," said Randel K. Johnson, vice president of labor and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The foreign worker, both legal and illegal, has been an integral part of our inflation-free economic growth and must be valued as a contributor to our strong economy."

 
Surveys point to fear, resentment

Technology workers in the United States insist that hiring foreigners makes it harder for Americans to get jobs, and many are uncomfortable working next to professionals who come from other countries.

That's the gist of a recent survey by career portal Techies.com, which polled more than 1,100 people on their views of the controversial H-1B visa worker issue. The Immigration and Naturalization Service program allows U.S. companies to import foreign workers with college degrees and relevant work experience if they cannot find Americans to fill open positions.

The best jobs should go to the best people. That builds strength. Among the results of the survey: 85 percent of respondents said they worried about losing their job to noncitizens, and 60 percent said they had problems communicating with foreign workers.

The survey by Bloomington, Minn.-based Techies.com included Americans and noncitizens living in the United States. Titles ranged from chief executive to data entry operator. Survey participants did not have to give their names or employers' names, so the comments were particularly candid.

Although the study indicates a general prejudice among Americans against H-1B workers, it also highlights the myths and stereotypes--often highly inaccurate--that influence the attitudes of many Americans.

For example, three out of five American workers said their companies have taken the H-1B program too far, flooding computer and engineering departments with lower-paid workers from India, Taiwan, Russia and Israel. That is pinching American workers accustomed to higher salaries, Americans complained, and it has eroded the cushy wage premium that the technology industry has traditionally afforded its work force.

"I think the U.S. should focus on more domestic training and recruitment of IT workers," a U.S.-born help desk analyst with less than two years of work experience said. "If we do not keep our population educated in the New Economy, then we are doing ourselves a disservice that will eventually lead to economic collapse."

In reality, H-1B holders do not necessarily drive down wages. In fact, they must get paid the median U.S. wage in a given job classification--or higher, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Their salaries might not advance as quickly as those of their American colleagues, but that is because they do not change jobs or get promoted as frequently--not because they start with a lower base salary.

According to the Department of Labor, employers must prove that the salary they provide the H-1B worker is at least the "prevailing" wage for the specific job in that region. To determine the wage, many employers file a salary determination request, in writing, with their state's employment security agency. In California, for example, employers file with the Employment Development Department of the Office of Alien Labor Certification.

It is just a matter of time before the immigrants, H-1Bs and foreign outsourcing will take over the industry. Another prevailing misperception among Americans surveyed is that H-1B workers steal jobs from U.S. citizens. Techies.com participants said the prospect of losing jobs to foreigners through H-1B visas is the No. 1 reason the program is controversial.

"American workers are being forced out of their jobs. I am one of them," said an unemployed application developer and U.S. citizen living in the Midwest. "It is just a matter of time before the immigrants, H-1Bs and foreign outsourcing will take over the industry."

Such comments are also contrary to government mandates to train U.S. workers for technical jobs. In fact, employers may hire a worker under an H-1B visa only after executives demonstrate that they can find no suitable U.S. citizens to take the job.

In addition, a cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment & Training Administration (ETA) is the H-1B technical skills training grant program. The government awards grants only to business partnerships that provide computer and engineering skills training to American workers. The goal of the program is to "lessen their dependence on high-skilled foreign workers," according to the ETA.

Not all Americans in the survey were biased against foreign workers. In fact, four out of five respondents said non-U.S. workers were equally or better qualified for most openings at U.S. companies.

Of those who favored H-1B visa programs, many said the system was the free market at work on a global scale. If the United States does not produce enough engineers and software coders because of its liberal arts-oriented school system, they said, then other countries will fill the void.

"America is a capitalist society, and likewise one should be able to excel based on their individual skills and merits," a PC technician and U.S. citizen from the East Coast said. "Corporations should also have the right to choose among whoever to fill their positions with individuals who will most serve to its benefit, regardless of background."

Others took a less economic, more cultural point of view. They argued that the United States has always been a country of immigrants--and that has been the key to the nation's high standard of living and cultural diversity.

"Sixty-five years ago my father came to America with a one-day visa to start a new, better life," a computer operator and U.S. citizen from the Middle Atlantic region said. "Thanks to him, three generations have enjoyed his dream and opportunity of a better life. Why should we deny others this same opportunity?"

Most Americans said they did not have anything against foreign workers themselves, but rather against their employers for hiring too many H-1B visa workers. Not surprisingly, foreign workers had a different take.

They blamed animosity on ethnic, racial and religious biases of prejudicial Americans. They said that qualified applicants should have equal access to jobs and opportunities for advancement.

"The best jobs should go to the best people. That builds strength," said one programmer analyst, a non-U.S. citizen seeking an H-1B sponsorship. "There's a lot of off-the-press, freshly minted certification types...and they expect preferential treatment because of where they're born? What's the difference between that and preference based on skin color?"

The H-1B visa debate has become a hotly contested topic in the tech industry, which is one of the largest consumers of skilled laborers from abroad. The Techies.com survey highlights how the debate has changed in the past year.

At the height of the Internet stock market boom and hiring frenzy in the late 1990s and early 2000, American executives were clamoring to increase federal quotas on H-1B workers to fill an alarming number of critical job openings. Some studies showed that up to half of all technical openings were going unfilled because the U.S. school system was not producing enough college graduates with degrees in mathematics, computer sciences or engineering.

But as the economy cooled beginning in the spring of 2000, tens of thousands of technology workers were laid off. With layoffs continuing, many Americans are changing their minds about foreign workers: Three out of five told Techies.com that the H-1B program should not be expanded under any circumstances.

Almost a quarter of the respondents said they have switched opinions about non-U.S. workers and H-1B visas in the past six months. Some managers said they changed their mind after their employers started "abusing" the program by hiring too many foreigners.

But the perceived effect of foreigners' lower salaries--regardless of whether they actually receive lower wages--seems to be the biggest sticking point for many Americans surveyed. Techies.com researcher Anna Braasch said many respondents insisted foreigners were lowering the overall pay scale for U.S. tech workers.

"They frequently added, 'The real reason I'm against temporary foreign workers is because they'll work for less,'" Braasch wrote, "or 'They're lowering the pay scale in my profession.'"


 

 
Body Shops
In addition to an economic backlash, the H-1B community has internal challenges--particularly from "body shops," small ventures that identify workers abroad, arrange their paperwork and then find them contract jobs in the United States. The controversial companies typically take a cut of the worker's salary--as much as one-half--and often levy hefty finder's fees and harsh penalties if workers quit.

Workers say body shops mislead them with Web sites and stationery designed to look like that of a legitimate technology company. After the body shop brings them to the United States, they often find that they're working for a small operation that plans to farm them out on short assignments. Although it's a far cry from a manual labor sweatshop, it can be a bitter disappointment for ambitious, young workers hoping to jump-start their career.

Ram Ramakrishnan, a 30-year-old native of Melbourne, Australia, came to the United States on a visa secured by a New Jersey contract agency. He now works in the Philadelphia office of New York-based software company Approach, the only H-1B visa worker in an office of 50 people. His previous job as a contractor was so difficult that he complained in letters to the INS and is exploring how to get laws passed outlawing them.

"I came from Australia into the office, and there were only two people. I said, 'Where's everyone else?' They said this was it," said Ramakrishnan, who received undergraduate and master's degrees from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in manufacturing engineering. "There was nothing to look forward to. Every day I'd go do some programming--and I was supposed to do that every single day for the rest of my life. I wanted a career to look forward to, and they couldn't offer any of that to me."

In April, a California judge ruled that Compubahn, a contract agency, had to pay $215,050.61 in legal fees and other expenses to a 33-year-old Indian programmer who sued over his restrictive work contract. The programmer's lawyer hoped the verdict would show other workers that they don't necessarily have to abide by their contracts.

The U.S. Labor Department has tried to investigate "H-1B dependent" businesses. Last fall, it ordered TEJ Technologies, of Scotch Plains, N.J., to pay three workers $52,224 in back wages. But aside from that case, agents say they don't have enough staff members to enforce labor laws on all body shops.

 
The myths and realities of H-1B visas

Many Americans think H-1B visa holders take jobs from U.S. citizens, while some H-1B visa holders themselves think they must flee the country if they are laid off. Here are some of the most common misperceptions about H-1B visas--and the facts that refute them.
 

1. Myth: H-1B visa holders get paid less than American workers, and they drive down the overall salaries of the U.S. work force.
Reality: According to the Department of Labor, employers must prove that the salaries they provide H-1B visa holders are at least the "prevailing" wages for the specific jobs in that region. Employers typically file salary determination requests with the State Employment Security Agency to determine wages.

H-1B visa holders' salaries might not advance as quickly as those of their American colleagues, but that is because the visa holders do not change jobs or get promoted as frequently--not because they start with a lower base salary.

2. Myth: H-1B visa holders must leave the country as soon as they get laid off.
Reality: Although a laid-off H-1B visa worker has no legal authorization to be in the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has never prosecuted anyone for remaining. The INS has no official guidelines regarding fired or laid-off H-1B visa holders, but it expects to issue guidelines later this year. Many jobless foreigners choose to leave, but mainly because of financial or familial, not legal, constraints.

3. Myth: H-1B visa holders take technology jobs from American workers, relegating U.S. citizens to lower-paying, non-technical jobs.
Reality: Employers may hire workers under H-1B visas only if they cannot find suitable U.S. citizens. The Department of Labor's Employment & Training Administration (ETA) set up a technical-skills training grant program, awarding cash to business partnerships that provide computer and engineering training to American workers. The ETA says its goal is to "lessen their dependence on high-skilled foreign workers," not increase it.

4. Myth: "Body shops" are middleman recruitment agencies that exploit workers.
Reality: Some lawyers and economists suggest that the companies actually help boost the economic and intellectual status of U.S. immigration, and that they helped fuel the late-1990s tech boom by filling positions that the U.S. education system could not fill.

5. Myth: Most H-1B visa holders are computer programmers imported from India.
Reality: H-1B visa holders are diverse, according to the first and only demographic survey by the INS, which was published from 1999 data on the U.S. General Accounting Office Web site: Fifty-nine percent work in information technology, and 5 percent work in electronics or engineering. The rest are mainly teachers, researchers, accountants, auditors, economists, doctors or commercial artists.

Forty-eight percent are from India, 9 percent are from China, 3 percent are from the United Kingdom, 3 percent are from Canada, and 3 percent are from the Philippines. Forty-two percent of all H-1B visa holders were living in the United States when their visas were approved, mainly on student visas or on visas for spouses and children of foreign students or visitors.

6. Myth: H-1B visa holders fill a critical void in the labor market.
Reality: Economists, immigration specialists and politicians debate whether the United States--or any capitalist economy--has ever had a shortage of workers. Some say the market will immediately correct for shortages by driving up wages and providing an incentive for Americans to enter underrepresented professions. Others say the problem rests with the U.S. school system, which is not producing the same ratio of science-oriented students as do Asian countries, and the bureaucratic education industry cannot immediately adapt to market changes.

7. Myth: H-1B visa holders leave the country when their six-year contracts expire.
Reality: About 50 percent of all H-1B visa holders receive green cards to work in the country permanently, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Even more apply but are rejected. The department has about 300,000 H-1B visa workers waiting to be approved for green cards. 

Compiled by Rachel Konrad
Sources: News.com research, U.S. Department of Labor, General Accounting Office, Immigration and Naturalization Service